With the introduction of new production methods and
technological innovation, tradesmen and workers encountered new
challenges. This study examines the development of trade unions as
a manifestation of working class experience in late Gilded Age
America. It underscores both the distinctive and the common
features of trade unionism across four occupations: building
tradesmen, cigar makers, garment workers, and printers. While
reactions differed, the unions representing these workers displayed
a convergence in their strategic orientation, programmatic emphasis
and organizational modus operandi. As such, they were not disparate
organizations, concerned only with sectional interests, but
participants in an organizational-network in which cooperation and
solidarity became benchmarks for the labor movement.
Printers coped with the mechanization of typesetting by
promoting greater cooperation among the different craft unions
within the industry, with the aim of establishing effective job
control. Building tradesmen exerted a pragmatic militancy, which
combined strikes with overtures to the employers' business sense,
to uphold the standards of craft labor. Cigar makers, especially
handicraftsmen who found their position threatened by machinery and
the growth of factory production, debated the merits of a
craft-based union against the possible advantages of an
industrial-oriented organization. Garment workers, caught in the
snare of a sweating system of labor in which wages and work loads
were inversely related, organized unions to mount strikes during
the busy season in the hope of securing higher wages, only to see
them whither in the midst of slack periods.
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